There are few things more evocative of spring than drifts of snowdrops or bluebells in dappled shade, or daffodils casting a yellow haze over fresh new grass.
In late winter, pink and white cyclamen provide a carpet of colour along slopes and rocky banks, while the first snowdrops often appear with blue crocus, and camassias add sparkle to longer grass.
If you want that natural effect, start planting now. You don’t have to have a massive garden to naturalise bulbs. You can achieve a natural effect by planting bulbs under a tree or at the base of a fence, providing you pick the right bulbs.
Avoid planting double-flowered, highly coloured daffodils if you want a natural look. Instead, go for varieties with smaller, more subtle flowers.
If you want to plant in grass, lift a rectangle of turf the size of a spade blade, digging a hole four times the depth of the bulb and loosen the soil in the bottom of the hole. Plant the bulbs and replace the turf. This size of hole should take around 10 narcissus bulbs or 20 crocuses, spaced the same distance apart and twice the diameter of the bulb to allow them to multiply without becoming overcrowded.
Group at least five of these plantings close together to create impact, placing other clumps a short distance from the main colony to give a natural effect.
In thin grass, you may be able to use a bulb planter, pushed into the ground with your foot.
Just remember though, that lawns need mowing and dodging bulbs is impractical unless they are confined to a specific patch for part of the year. Bear in mind that the foliage will remain after the flowers have died and you won’t be able to mow until the leaves have died down naturally, which could be another six weeks.
Good bulbs for grass include Crocus vernus subsp. albiflorus, such as the purple ‘Grand Maitre’ and short-stemmed daffodils such as Narcissus ‘Carlton’. Keep yellow and white daffodils apart or you won’t have the same natural-looking impact.
You’ll need to plant an awful lot of snowdrops to achieve a naturalised effect quickly, so it might be better to build your colony gradually, planting a few more clumps each year.
They will naturalise in grass, but if you want them to multiply quickly, they need to be allowed to set seed before the grass is cut. Foliage and flower stems should have died back completely before you mow.
If you are not planting in grass, scatter bulbs over the planting area in handfuls and plant them where they fall. Avoid spacing them regularly, but plant drifts of one type of bulb, except in the case of large-flowered crocus.
If you have longer grass and a wildflower meadow-style planting area, try planting snakeshead fritillaries, and native Lent lilies (Narcissus pseudonarcissus).
Bulbs which prefer shady spots in woodlands and under trees include Cyclamen coum, snowdrops and aconites, which should multiply freely if they get just a few hours of sunlight daily.
Bluebells will survive quite dense shade if they have enough sunlight during their crucial weeks of growth and flowering. An alternative to bluebells is grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum), which succeed in virtually any situation. With both bluebells and muscari, let the green seedheads turn to parchment, split and shed their seeds before mowing.
Other good candidates for naturalising include the dainty Chionodoxa luciliae, glory of the snow, which likes dappled shade, and anemone blanda, which likes well-drained soil with added compost in sun or partial shade, within a tree canopy or in short, thin grass.
BEST OF THE BUNCH – Stipa
This large group of perennial grasses, featuring both evergreen and deciduous types, forms tufts of narrow foliage above which tall flower stems rustle in the wind, providing movement and texture to your garden. You might go for a statement specimen such as Stipa gigantea (Spanish oat grass), which grows to 2.5 metres and whose flowers turn gold when ripe in summer. It looks beautiful planted with the tall, open Verbena bonariensis, giving an airy feel to any planting scheme. I love the smaller S tenuissima, a wispy feather grass which looks wonderful as underplanting for tall, lollipop alliums, or next to brilliant crocosmia such as the vivid red ‘Lucifer’, accentuating the hue of the flowers. It produces mounds of fine, jade-green leaves topped with airy beige flowers. Like other stipas, it grows well on dry soils or in any reasonably fertile, well-drained soil in full sun. Dig in coarse grit on heavier soils to improve drainage. Cut back deciduous species in early winter or spring, and divide clumps from mid-spring to early summer.
GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT – Prune summer-fruiting raspberries
If you’ve finished eating your summer-fruiting raspberries it’s time to prune them to encourage a good crop next year. Cut off all the leaves about 7-8cm above the crown, cut off unwanted runners, rake them up and compost them. Remove all the old canes which have fruited and cut weak new ones down to soil level. Retain the best of the young unfruited canes and tie in strong new shoots, spacing them evenly along their supports – usually horizontal wires attached to vertical posts at either end of the row.
If your raspberries are newly planted, wait until spring to cut down the old cane to near ground level when new growth appears.
What to do this week
- Pot young alpine plants raised from cuttings in spring and overwinter them in a cold frame before planting out next year.
- Lift early-flowering Lilium regale and reset them in well-drained soil.
- Sow poppies outdoors where they can flower next year.
- As the seedheads of annuals and perennials ripen, collect seed, remembering to label with care.
- Give autumn green crops a light dressing of fertiliser hoed into the soil around them.
- Continue to harvest apples and pears and store them for use over the winter.
- Plant spring-flowering bulbs, particularly daffodils as they begin their root growth earlier than most bulbs.
- Continue to remove weeds so that they don’t shed seeds which will be stored over the winter.
- Lift slightly tender perennials such as fuchsias before the first frosts hit them.
- Order new fruit trees, canes or bushes.
- Protect ripening fruit from birds and squirrels